Recent Commonplace Entries


January 2019

“There are no historical critics, only fellow practitioners.” (Suzannah Lipscomb, in History Today, December 2018)

“The most savage review I have received since my first book was published in 1969 was written a few years ago by an American specialist writer on intelligence. Bloodied, I asked a fellow historian what the writer might have against me. He responded succinctly: ‘You’ve stepped on his patch. He wants to make sure that you never do so again.’” (Max Hastings, in the Spectator, December 15/22/29, 2018)

“In A Spy Named Orphan Roland Philipp’s description of Donald Maclean’s psychological make-up chimes with what I have always felt about the Cambridge spies (Philby excepted) – namely, that their romance with the Soviets Union partook of patriotism as much as it did of espionage. Maclean seemed to want to hold Britain and the USSR in balance, making a conscious effort to serve both, particularly when in the 1930s the moral interests of the UK were being so ill-served by the government of Baldwin and Chamberlain. I’ve never been much interested in Maclean, finding him as Burgess did something of a bore, but Philipps makes the story and the slow uncovering of his treachery a gripping narrative and an overwhelmingly sad one.” (Alan Bennett, in 24 August 2108 excerpt from his Diaries, published in the London Review of Books, January 3)

Bring Back the Austro-Hungarian Empire!

The main reason for what is happening in Hungary (“Hungary’s Autocracy Beneath a Patina of Democracy,” news article, Dec. 26) is the alienation and anger Hungarians feel toward Western Europe and the European Union.

The cause of this anger is Europe’s failure to do anything to correct the terrible injustice that occurred at the end of World War I through the Treaty of Trianon, when this kingdom, over a thousand years old, was dismembered. This occurred not because Hungary was on the wrong side in the war but because Central Europe was getting too strong and could no longer be dominated by the French and the British.

President Woodrow Wilson rightly opposed the Trianon Treaty; he felt that strangers should not be allowed to redraw the borders in Central Europe and overnight turn millions of Hungarians into foreigners in the towns that were built by their fathers.

It is the responsibility of the European Union to require at least local autonomy for these millions of Hungarians. And it is also important for the general public to understand the reasons for the underlying alienation and anger that are exploited by demagogues. Most people in the West don’t even know that this national minority — one of Europe’s largest — exists. (Letter from Béla Lipták, founder of the Hungarian Lobby, in NYT, January 3)

“In the case of two brothers brought up in very much the same way, we have the one who becomes a nonconformist minister because his father was a nonconformist minister, while his brother becomes a militant atheist because his father was a nonconformist minister.” (Herbert Butterfield, from On Historical Explanation, quoted by C. T. McIntire in Herbert Butterfield)

“I realize that homosexuality is a serious problem for anyone who is, but then,heterosexuality is a serious problem for anyone who is, too. And being a man is a serious problem and being a woman is, too. Lots of things are problems.” (Edward Gorey, quoted by Robert Gottlieb in NYT Book Review, January 6)

“When the English Civil War broke out, hundreds of Puritans returned home to fight in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, a military force founded on the radical notion that promotions should be based on proficiency rather than social status. As they clashed with Royalist armies, they grew to believe they were fighting to liberate their Anglo-Saxon lands from the Norman invaders six hundred years after the latter arrived with William the Conqueror. ‘What were the lords of England,’ a group of common soldiers declared to a wartime visitor to their encampment, ‘but William the Conqueror’s colonels?’ King Charles, they decreed, was ‘the last successor of William the Conqueror’ who had to be cast out if the people were to ’have recovered ourselves from under the Norman yoke.’” (from Colin Woodard’s American Nations, p 63)

“There is nothing in all the dark caves of human passion so cruel and deadly as the hatred the South Carolinians profess for the Yankees.   New England is to [them] the incarnation of moral and political wickedness and social corruption . . .  the source of everything which South Carolina hates.” (Times correspondent William Russell, 28 May, 1851, quoted by Colin Woodard in American Nations, p 229)

“What is frustrating about machine learning, however, is that the algorithms can’t articulate what they’re thinking. We don’t know why they work, so we don’t know if they can be trusted. AlphaZero gives every appearance of having discovered some important principles about chess, but it can’t share that understanding with us. Not yet, at least. As human beings, we want more than answers. We want insight. This is going to be a source of tension in our interactions with computers from now on.” (Steven Strogatz, professor in mathematics at Cornell University, in NYT, January 8)

“There are two maxims for historians which so harmonise with what I know of history that I would like to claim them as my own, though they really belong to nineteenth-century historiography: first, that governments try to press upon the historian the key to all the drawers except one, and are very anxious to spread the belief that this single one contains no secret of importance; secondly, that if the historian can only find out the thing which government does not want him to know, he will lay his hand upon something that is likely to be significant.” (Herbert Butterfield in Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria)

“Nothing in the whole of historiography is more subtly dangerous than the natural disposition to withhold criticism because John Smith belongs to one’s own circle or because he is a nice man, so that it seems ungracious to try to press him on a point too far, or because it does not occur to one that something more could be extracted from hm by importunate behavior.” (Herbert Butterfield in Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria)

“One of the high tests of an historian is the degree to which he possesses the requisite elasticity of mind, so that he is not a mere compiler adding new facts to old ones, not a mere prisoner of a current framework of story, but a detective determined not to miss the clue that may lead to a fresh reconstruction of the theme and carry the issue to a higher order of thought.” (Herbert Butterfield in Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria)

“Early February saw another lucky escape when a shell exploded ‘at no great distance’ from him while lunching at Laurence Farm with Archie Sinclair and others.” (Andrew Roberts in Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny, p 241)

“A meaningful national identity [for the ni-Vanuatu] has been constructed from a common appreciation of ceremonial pig-tusk bracelets and the taking of kava, a very mild narcotic root that looks like primordial pea soup and tastes like a fine astringent dirt.” (Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the NYT Magazine, January 20)

“In Mr. Glazer’s case, it seemed, a multiculturalist was a neoconservative who had been mugged by reality.” (from NYT obituary of Nathan Glazer, January 21)

And which strong post-WWII international order was that?

“Traditional adversaries will continue attempts to gain and assert influence, taking advantage of changing conditions in the international environment — including the weakening of the post-WWII international order and dominance of Western democratic ideals, increasingly isolationist tendencies in the West, and shifts in the global economy.” (from report by director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, in NYT, January 23)

“In the last resort the best way to conceal a damning story is to confess under pressure to something less incriminating but nevertheless discreditable.” (from A History of the German Secret Service and British Counter-Measures (July 1944) [WO-279-499 at the National Archives, probably written by Hugh Trevor-Roper])

“Spies may be clever or stupid, plausible or clumsy, experienced or hopelessly amateur. The fact that a man is manifestly ill-equipped to be a spy is, particularly in this war, no proof that he is not one. Stories which appear wildly improbable may in the end turn out to be true. Other stories which appear too absurd or too complicated to have been invented may, nevertheless, not be true. There is no rule of universal application; and a case which breaks all the rules may merely be a piece of stupidity or a mistake on the enemy’s part.” (from A History of the German Secret Service and British Counter-Measures (July 1944) [WO-279-499 at the National Archives, probably written by Hugh Trevor-Roper])

“It is less difficult than might be supposed to extract a confession. Spies are not commonly men of character. They are far more likely (at least in this war) to be parasites than patriots. It is a profession particularly attractive to vain men who have failed elsewhere. Their damaged self-esteem is restored by the atmosphere of secrecy and importance which surrounds their doings irrespective of their own success or failure.” (from A History of the German Secret Service and British Counter-Measures (July 1944) [WO-279-499 at the National Archives, probably written by Hugh Trevor-Roper])

“‘Intriguing parallel’ is one of those phrases that makes one start counting the ceiling tiles.” (James Wolcott, in London Review of Books, January 24)

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